A New Twist For Bowhunts

With the advent of crossbow hunting this fall, a new dimension has been added to the Mississippi deer woods. What's it like? (Dec 2006)

Mississippi bowhunters -- and especially those who are newcomers to the sport -- now have the opportunity to add a new twist to their archery experience: With the introduction of the General Crossbow License in 2005, those who didn't qualify for the Special Crossbow License can now sample the thrill from a somewhat different orientation -- horizontally rather than vertically.

In the past, these trigger-actuated bows that you draw and cock rather than draw and hold could only be used by hunters 65 years of age or older and/or certified by a physician as having a disability that totally and permanently prevents the use of a compound bow, recurve bow, or longbow, or other conventional archery equipment.

But since 2005, any resident and non-resident having a regular hunting license can buy a General Crossbow License. The fee for the new license is $10.00 for residents and $20.00 for non-residents. Unlike the Special Crossbow License, this permit is only valid during primitive weapons and gun season for deer only. Small game also may be hunted with a crossbow license, but only during those periods when open season for the particular animal coincides with an open season on deer. (Continued)

Even before the measure went into effect, however, I managed to get a preview of what this move means for hunting in the Magnolia State.

Being a life member of the Mississippi Bowhunters Association, I was -- to say the least -- skeptical prior to my first experience with hunting whitetails by crossbow. In early October 2005, Robert Pitman, the owner of Alabama's prestigious White Oak Plantation, invited me to cover their inaugural Horton Crossbow Hunt.

At that point, I'd never even held a crossbow in my hands -- but I did hold some prejudices about the contraptions, having heard negative arguments to the effect that that they're not bows but "cross-guns" that shoot "bolts" rather than arrows, thus supposedly conferring an unfair advantage over those armed with "traditional" archery equipment. I'd soon discover, however, that most, if not all, of those preconceptions were totally unfounded.

Regardless of whether the crossbow ended up pleasing or disappointing me, I immediately realized on arriving at White Oak Plantation that everything I'd heard about this hunter's paradise was true. From the moment I stepped out of my truck, I felt at home on the sprawling 20,000 acres that make up the facility.

"White Oak's mission is to provide our clientele with the finest hunting, food, accommodations and service possible," Pitman explained. "The concept is purely Southern hospitality with our own personal flair to provide a truly quality outdoor experience. We're dedicated to the principles of respect for the land, the game and the guest."

Fortunately for me, I hooked up with a couple of other participants -- Horton Crossbows' Ottie Snyder, director of the American Crossbow Federation, and Daniel Hendricks, publisher of Horizontal Bowhunters -- whose wealth of valuable information about crossbow hunting, was just what a neophyte crossbowman like me needed.

Ottie Snyder is the kind of unpretentious guy who shoots straight from the hip. If you don't want the truth, then don't ask him, because the unvarnished facts are what you're going to get. Under his tutelage, I was amazed at how little time and practice it took to master a crossbow. Along the way, my view of these weapons also shifted toward a more favorable, fact-based view.

It's quite impressive to see a beginner put a bolt in the bull's-eye at the first-ever pull of the trigger. With a compound bow, even once it's tuned and properly sighted-in, it still takes countless more hours to become proficient at hitting the target at various ranges. Not so with a crossbow! Just cock it, drop a bolt onto the rail, shoulder it, aim, and pull the trigger -- it's as simple as that! And since shooting technique with a crossbow is akin to that with a rifle, it's extremely easy to hit the bull's eye on each and every shot. That quality alone makes the crossbow an excellent choice for beginning archers.

That first morning, we spent several hours at White Oak's 3-D practice range shooting the various models of Horton crossbows. Not because we needed the practice -- simply because it was fun!

Later that afternoon, my guide dropped me off at the trail that led to my assigned stand for the evening hunt. I was eager to try out my new equipment in a real hunting situation. It was at this point that I discovered a few things about crossbows that are less than favorable. First of all, the crossbow is somewhat bulky, comparable in weight to a hunting rifle. However, a well-designed sling did make it easier to carry in the woods and aided in getting into and out of the stand.

Another disadvantage I found with the crossbow is the fact that it takes considerably more room to maneuver into position and aim at an approaching deer. Not only do you need a few feet of clearance in front of you for the stock, but also a couple of feet clearance from side to side to account for the width of the horizontal limbs. If you prefer hunting from a confined tree stand, a crossbow may not be your weapon of choice.

Fortunately, I didn't have long to wait before a herd of deer came trotting down the ridge I was on. The group slowed to a walk and seemed to tiptoe across the cleared lane in front of my stand. Earlier I had used my Nikon rangefinder to get a fix on the distance to the trail the deer were on, which was 25 yards. Carefully I eased the Horton 175 to my shoulder and waited for a fat, mature doe that was bringing up the rear to step into the lane. As if scripted, the big nanny stopped broadside directly in front of me. Clicking off the safety, I found her shoulder with my sights and squeezed the trigger.

A loud thwack confirmed that the bolt had found its mark. The big doe bolted forward, made a sharp right turn and collapsed not 30 yards from the spot at which the bolt (which was now sticking in the ground) had hit her.

Not only was it my first deer taken by means of the horizontal bow, but it also turned out to be the first whitetail ever harvested by crossbow at White Oak Plantation. Just icing on the cake!

WHY CROSSBOWS?

So it's pretty obvious as to why hunters take to using crossbows. They're readily mastered and more deadly than a bow in most hunters' hands. But why did the wildlife managers opt to go along with the change of status on these weapons?

As is the case in much of the country, the number of hunters in Mississippi has been declining even as the deer popu

lation continues to expand, exceeding carrying capacity in many instances. In response to these issues, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks is seeking to increase hunter participation, license sales and harvest rates. Agency officials say that the primary goal is to enhance hunter opportunity without damaging the resource. Equally importantly, they want to achieve these goals within the general framework of current season lengths.

According to Mark Livingston, legislative chairman of the Mississippi Bowhunters Association, the special archery-only seasons were created during an era in which the MDWFP wanted both more-robust hunter participation and minimal biological impact.

"Bowhunting as we know it grew and prospered in the perfect tailwind of the founding era," Livingston said with regard to the reestablishment of the deer herd in Mississippi in modern times. "However, the wildlife management plan has radically changed. State wildlife agencies want more hunters and more harvests. This is the exact opposite situation from which special archery seasons were originally found.

"Today, archery season is catching the eye of our state wildlife authorities. They see it as a rather ineffective tool in modern game management. From their perspective, bowhunting doesn't kill enough animals and doesn't have enough participation."

That's where crossbows come in. With their legalization during archery seasons, hunters suddenly become much more proficient in culling the herd, albeit not at the same range or rate as that available to rifle hunters.

Ottie Snyder makes another point in favor of these horizontal bows. "Crossbows have great recruitment value for new bowhunters, especially women and youth," he suggested. "The ballistic performance of a crossbow is the equivalent of a 65- to 70-pound compound bow. However, a horizontal bow is much easier for a new archer to master and is just as effective as a vertical bow at taking game at distances of 40 yards or less."

In order to compare the effectiveness of a crossbow to that of a traditional bow, Snyder offered an anecdote: "We set up a 60-yard target with a bull's-eye on a post 6 feet above the bull's eye on the target. As a demonstration of the ballistic performance, an archer using a 65-pound compound bow aimed at the bull's eye above the bottom target with his 20-yard pin and shot. The arrow dropped into the bull's eye of the lower target. Another archer using a 150-pound crossbow, again using his 20-yard pin, did the same thing and the arrow stuck in the target right beside the longer arrow. Both had 72 inches of trajectory between 20 and 60 yards.

"The demonstration slammed home the point that the crossbow is a bow and arrow turned sideways and shot with a trigger -- nothing more, nothing less," Snyder concluded"

In 1982, the state of Ohio allowed the use of crossbows in their archery deer season. At that point, there were more than 60,000 traditional bowhunters in that state. Though there was initially some grumbling about whether crossbow users were really archers, the weapons proved popular, and now the Ohio deer season has been expanded by five weeks and the bag limit increased by as much as 500 percent in certain areas of the state. The number of traditional archers in Ohio has increased from 60,000 to over 100,000 statewide. But more than 30,000 of the hunters also take advantage the opportunity to use a crossbow. In all, better than 60 percent of Ohio deer hunters use archery equipment. If there has been any long-term conflict with the introduction of crossbows in that state, it's not apparent. Results of the same kind are likely to be seen here in Mississippi as well.

Although I still prefer to hunt whitetails with my compound bow, I most definitely plan to go "horizontal hunting" from time to time. Not because I think it gives me some sort of advantage -- just because it's just plain old fun to hunt with a crossbow! After all, isn't that the real reason we like to bowhunt? Because it's fun?

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